Wayne Bledsoe: 'Marshal' Andy bouncing back from recent medical issues

'Marshal' Andy Smalls

"Marshal" Andy Smalls

"Marshal" Andy Smalls isn't quite back in the saddle, but he's close.

During 2010 Knoxville's irrepressible singing cowboy was waylaid by surgeries to remove two spinal tumors. The surgery left him temporarily paralyzed. However, Andy recently graduated to a walker from a wheel-chair, and he will perform two Christmas shows (Dec. 2 and 16) at Regas with pianist Margaret Seagraves.

Viewers of Andy's "Riders of the Silver Screen" television program on WSJK/WKOP may have noticed that Andy had been off the show for four or five episodes and was in a wheelchair for some of the others. He's also only made a couple of musical appearances during 2010.

Many of us in Knoxville first came to know Andy through his commercials for Waffle House and then hosting "Riders of the Silver Screen," which combines the showing of rare B-Western films with celebrity interviews and Western music performances. Andy, who is 81, fell in love with Western movies and Western music at about the same time. When we spoke last week, Andy said the first piece of music that truly spoke to him was the Sons of the Pioneers' "Cool Water." He remembers having to climb on a chair to crank and reset the needle on the Victrola to play the song. He later fell in love with the music of Eddy Arnold. Andy was also a regular at the Strand Theater in Georgetown, S.C., soaking up the adventures of cowboy stars and dreaming of becoming a singing cowboy.

However, when he began his singing career in high school it was with a big band led by Jack Blount. After Andy began attending Clemson University on a football scholarship, he'd return to singing after football season.

"My coach frowned on that," said Andy. "He called me Caruso. But I made spending money that way, and back then it was hard to come by."

When Andy married his wife Kathryn in 1957, he put his music on hold and concentrated on making a living. He moved to Knoxville in 1968 to work with Charles Tombras Advertising, Inc. In 1970, he was contracted to write and perform in shows for the Franklin, N.C., theme park Gold City. After tiring of being the bad guy, Andy wrote himself into the part of town marshal.

In 1983, Smalls created "Riders of the Silver Screen'' for the TV station WKCH, Channel 43, which was just going on the air. In 1990, the show moved to WKOP.

It was after starting the show that Andy really dove into singing again. Since that time, he has performed with many different bands and become one of the city's favorite musical emcees.

In 2006, Andy returned to Georgetown to do a benefit for the Strand Theater, where he had seen all the Western movies when he was young. He says seeing his name on the marquee and performing on that stage was probably the biggest thrill of his life.

"That's the sort of thing you lie in bed and dream about, but never happens - but it did."

While Andy had had a few problems with his coordination in walking for the past two years, it was at his 2009 Christmas performances at Regas that he first realized he had a problem.

"I went to get up, and I couldn't hardly get off the stool," said Andy.

Doctors later found a tumor in the upper part of his spine. When surgery was done for that, another more serious tumor was discovered in the lower part of his back.

The second surgery left him unable to walk.

"I haven't felt that bad, but not being able to get around without depending on somebody all the time has been real tough on me," said Andy. "It paralyzed my left leg, but I'm starting to get feeling back into it."

He is currently preparing for his shows at Regas, and he's anxious to work with Margaret Seagraves again.

"I haven't run into anybody else in Knoxville who could cover for me the way she does ... and she knows all the standards."

The two will perform mostly Christmas music and love songs from the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

The shows will run from 6 to 9:30 p.m.

After so long away, Andy is slowly getting back up to speed. He's planning a return to radio with "The Marshal Andy Show featuring the late Eddy Arnold," which will soon begin airing on WKVL 850 AM.

While Andy still has quite a bit of physical therapy ahead of him, he hopes to return to singing more often in 2011.

"It's going to take about another year before I'll be back to normal."

Wayne Bledsoe may be reached at 865-342-6444 or bledsoew@knoxville.com. He is also the host of "All Over the Road" midnight Saturdays to 4 a.m. Sundays on WDVX-FM.

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